Skepticism and the Humanities

Over the last five years, I have become increasingly involved in a community intensely interested in the popularization of science and critical thinking, the skeptic movement. Innumerable skeptically-oriented meetup groups have appeared in cities all over the world, and they are coordinating with one another. If you survey the skeptical movement, you will see that we cluster around (or at least frequently walk past) many of the same online water coolers–Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, the JREF site, the National Center for Science Education, the Skeptics’ Guide podcast, Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid, the Skeptic Zone Podcast, Skepticality and any number of other podcasts. We attend The Amazing Meeting Las Vegas, The Amazing Meeting London, The Amazing Meeting Australia, Dragon*Con, NECSS, and numerous other regional, national, and international conferences on science, skepticism and critical thinking. We have collectively taken up a number of political causes that are opportunities to reintroduce science and critical thinking into the daily lives of our fellow citizens, including combating antivaccine wackloonery, debunking the bizarrely popular holographic wristband phenomenon, and checking the often dangerous claims of self-proclaimed natural health gurus.

A major part of what binds all of these people together is a deep appreciation of the importance of evidence and reason, to which I subscribe without reservation. However, something that is often missing from the discussion is an appreciation of the critical thinking that goes on in the humanities. In fact, I occasionally even encounter outright hostility to the humanities (often, I think, in association with the hilarious Sokal Hoax). And don’t get me wrong, there is some woo in the humanities (you will hear a lot about that on this site in the months to come), but most academics in the humanities strive to come to a better understanding of the human experience through examining evidence. Critical thinking, that is, is not the exclusive domain of the sciences, and we want to gently remind fellow skeptics of that.

Another reason to recognize the close relationship of skepticism and humanistic inquiry is that much of the formal training that high school and college students receive in critical thinking and argument is in English classes. Through the nineteenth century, the skills associated with argument (on most topics) were folded into a topic known as “rhetoric” and were geared at creating men (yes, just men) who would participate in public life. The humanities have since fractured and specialized (perhaps as a reaction to the simultaneous specialization of disciplines in the sciences), and courses in rhetoric and argument have become increasingly focused on producing and reacting to written texts. This is why students receive so much of their formal training in argument in English classes, communication departments and writing programs. After freshman English, students practice producing extended syllogistic arguments, finding and citing reliable sources, and developing style and a sense of audience in term papers for their history, theology, philosophy, cultural studies, and literature classes. We must cultivate an appreciation of these skills across the disciplines, and instructors should keep these goals in mind as they train students to become capable, independent learners.

Another reason that the apparent exclusion of the humanities from skeptical circles seems forced and artificial to me is because the most skilled communicators in the movement, including James Randi, Pamela Gay, Phil Plait, the Mythbusters, and innumerable podcasters, authors, bloggers and educators are all participating in the production of culture–they are immersed in and generating the stuff that researchers in the humanities groove on! In many cases, they actually are professional artists, like George Hrab and “Surly” Amy Davis Roth. And the easy fit of a Skeptical track into the cultural carnival that is Dragon*Con suggests to me that the producers and consumers of pop culture (and so-called “high” culture, if you care to make the distinction) and the people who are interested in critical thinking overlap substantially. And I can even think of a couple of high profile skeptics who have advanced academic degrees in the humanities, including Karen Stollznow (linguistics) and Joe Nickell (a Ph.D. in English).

My interest in developing this site is both professional and personal. Professionally, I look forward to forging relationships with other scholars across the disciplines and benefiting from their expertise and enthusiasm. Personally, I derive immense satisfaction from my research into fringe and unorthodox areas of study and find the urge to share what I learn with others almost impossible to resist.

If you are a researcher in the humanities or artist who would be interested in joining or contributing to this project, contact us through this website or via my gmail address, rjblaskiewicz. A sample of the sorts of the topics that we plan to cover include:

  • Freud and the Academy
  • Are memes real things?
  • Postmodernism and science.
  • Academic fetishes
  • So, which writers and artists were actually gay, and how much does it matter?
  • Conspiracy theory and pseudoscholarship
  • Biblical authorship (David’s Psalms, Moses and the Torah, Gospel writers)
  • The rhetoric of science.
  • Was Shakespeare Catholic? Jewish? Shakespeare?
  • Did Dan Brown get anything right?
  • Creationists and the abuse of non-Christian mythology
  • Monsters in history, art, and literature
  • Psychology and literature
  • Isn’t oral history just anecdotal evidence?
  • Enemies foreign, domestic, and imagined
  • Persuasion and propaganda

And lots more, including book reviews and commentary on the depiction of the humanities in popular culture. Additionally, if you have a topic that would like to see added to these, we’ll be happy to add it to the queue.

RJB

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5 Responses to Skepticism and the Humanities

  1. KSturgess says:

    Hi,

    Would suggest you tune into Skeptically Speaking, which recently featured Jenna Griffith? She’s appeared on panels at D*C. I myself, am a Philosophy and English Literature grad. 🙂 Kylie S.

    • Bob says:

      Hi, Kylie. It’s like you are some sort of psychic wizard. 🙂 I have already talked to Jenna, and she is interested in contributing to the site in some capacity. (We have her first post on deck right now.) Actually, part of the impetus to actually go ahead with this website was a conversation about the humanities and skepticism I had w/ Jenna after her D*C panel. I had considered extending a similar invitation to you because of your teaching and background, and still would happily, but I know that you are already a very busy skeptic. 🙂

      Viva la Razon!

      Bing, er, Bob

  2. bug_girl says:

    I’m kind of afraid to ask, but….academic fetishes??

    Can you explain that one a bit more? 😀

  3. Bob says:

    I’m not talking about Catholic schoolgirl outfits, if that’s what you’re thinking. 😀 I was thinking more of the faddish aspects of the humanities. For instance, “fat studies.” I mean, really? That’s just their weird thing.

    B

  4. bug_girl says:

    oh, that makes sense. I was thinking more along the lines of the way academics tend to think if it isn’t published in an obscure scholarly journal with leaden prose, it isn’t worth much.
    ;p

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